How Cisco is helping to build a connected society, even in times of crisis
Digital exclusion is a serious challenge for our society – perhaps now more than ever.
The outbreak of Covid-19 has underlined the absolute importance of digital engagement. At a time of social distancing, digital channels are critical for delivering health and social care services to people living in isolation – and overcoming loneliness and protecting mental health.
The impact of digital exclusion in the current situation can’t be overstated. Most pressingly, it prevents those most in need accessing information and services younger generations may take for granted.
But just as important is the loneliness digital exclusion fosters, especially in a time when physical contact is so limited. As conversations – either with healthcare workers or with the wider communities – have moved online, it’s all too easy for elderly people to feel cut off from wider society.
At Cisco, we want to be a force that bridges the digital divide. That’s why last year we partnered with Suffolk County Council, West Suffolk Council, The University of Suffolk, GDS Digital Services and Bronze Labs in a project called ‘Connected Together’ to try and learn more about the issue.
And with the outbreak of Covid-19, we’ve been able to use some of our innovations and learnings to combat digital exclusion and provide critical services to vulnerable groups.
Leaving no one behind
The premise of the Connected Together project was to identify participants from across the two local authorities who had no access to the internet. We then provided them with connectivity for free, and measured the impact that had. Through the project, we hoped to focus on these three attributes:
Would replacing face-to-face interactions with those enabled through technology have an effect on participants’ feeling of loneliness?
- Digital skills
By interacting with basic technology, would participants feel their digital skills had improved?
- Quality of life
Perhaps most importantly, would participants feel technology improved their overall quality of life?
To measure the impact of connectivity on these attributes, we equipped our 48 participants with basic digital capabilities. This included a tablet developed by GDS Digital, which had been specifically modified for ease of use. The tablet had an app called ‘Learn My Way’ pre-installed to help participants learn how to use it, and we also gave them a physical demonstration.
As the project continued, the tech was refined further based on the needs of individual participants – for example for people who lacked strength in their arms or who had oversensitive eyes.
And of course, Cisco provided the infrastructure that connected all of this together. We placed routers in all of the participants’ homes, enabling them to connect to the internet.
The certified Cisco secure infrastructure also had a key benefit for health workers visiting our participants in their homes. Rather than only being able to access their systems at their offices, carers could access core care services from the home they were at, drastically reducing their traveling time and increasing the efficiency and impact of their home visits.
The University of Suffolk undertook an impact analysis to enable us to understand the value of connecting these individuals. And although more research is needed, the results show we succeeded in creating an ecosystem of digital inclusion.
Nearly a quarter (21%) of participants saw their digital skills increase. Although we’d like this figure to be higher, we managed to identify why participants didn’t adopt the technology – such as family members not encouraging them, or them becoming bored with the devices. Addressing these issues and providing training will be vital to ensuring future projects will be successful.
While technology didn’t reduce feelings of loneliness, conversely, it didn’t worsen it. This is encouraging in the sense that technology’s utility can be leveraged without isolating participants further.
Furthermore, Bronze Labs won an industry award for their Tribe app, which is a real testament to their hard work.
Ultimately, the study shows that gaps in health and social care can indeed be addressed through digital inclusiveness. The model is clearly commercially viable, as shown by the success of our partners, so it’s a model that can be used to address digital inclusion on a wider scale.
Responding to the crisis
Not long after the conclusion of our project, Covid-19 struck and many of the services normally delivered face to face moved online, virtually overnight.
Fortunately, we have been able to apply the technology developed for this project to support the relief effort.
The tablet developed by GDS Digital is being rolled out even further in response to the Covid-19 crisis, going live in three new local authority areas in the UK by mid-April.
This means that people with little or no digital skills can gain access to critical health and care services, video welfare calling and apps like shopping, to help with isolation and mental health.
Health and social care professionals can remain in secure and remote contact with users on this platform, as well as monitoring activity and wellbeing using sensors and smart plugs in the home. A community app on the platform also allows secure messaging and content within defined user groups which can include friends and family.
The GDS Digital team has extended the offer for a free demonstration or trial, so the tool can help as many people as possible.
The Tribe app, which connects those in need to the local community, is also being used to support the response to Covid-19.
In more than ten countries, the app is coordinating volunteers from across the public sector and general public in their efforts to help local people.
In Sussex alone, over 150 people have used Tribe to volunteer their efforts – which is a tribute to the work done by Bronze Labs.
A connected society
As a project, we’re extremely proud to be promoting digital inclusion at a time when it really can save lives.
But even after this crisis passes, demand for health and social care will continue to skyrocket. To keep pace, these sectors must embrace digital solutions. But the problem is, in doing so, they risk alienating those who need their services most.
This study – and our subsequent work – shows that there is a way to foster digital inclusion in every group. We look forward to pioneering more research into the future, helping to contribute towards a more connected society.Tags: